“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Langston Hughes’s most anthologized poem. Hughes wrote this brief poem in fifteen minutes in July, 1920, while crossing the Mississippi on a train ride to visit his father in Mexico. It is one of Hughes’s earliest poems, and its subject established the emphasis of much of his subsequent poetry. Hughes’s poems may be divided into several categories: protest poems, social commentary, Harlem poems, folk poems, poems on African and negritude themes, and miscellaneous poetry on various other nonracial subjects and themes. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” centers on African and negritude themes. Hughes’s writing always shows an identification with Africa, and his later poetry on African subjects and African themes demonstrates his growing sophistication and knowledge of the history and problems of Africa. Along with its emphasis on African themes, this poem so poignantly and dramatically expresses what it means to be a black American that it helps to assure Hughes’s continuing fame.
Through the images of the river, Hughes traces the history of the African American from Africa to America. The muddy Mississippi makes Hughes consider the roles that rivers have played in human history. The first three lines introduce the subject of the poem. The primary image of water symbolically represents the history of humanity, acknowledging the fact that rivers are more ancient in the history of the earth:
(The entire section is 467 words.)